She was small in stature but she stood head and shoulders above the rest of us. Her life and her message affected the way we view the poor and highly impacted the ways in which we live our lives. She called upon us to take Matthew 25 literally and to see Jesus in the poor waiting to be loved and cared for.
She told Catholics that they should show the same reverence for the poor that they show toward the Eucharist. She taught them that when they touched the poor, they were touching the body of Christ. She revealed to Protestants that Christianity is truly ecumenical and that the essence of the faith lay not in institutional affiliation, but within the expressions of love in the name of Christ.
Whenever she wrote, she spelled ‘poor’ with a capital ‘P’ because to her, the poor were the sacred means through which God comes to all people of all creeds. Her concern was not only for the poor but for all the oppressed people of the world. She taught us much when she said, “Whenever I look into the eyes of a man dying from AIDS, I have the awareness that Jesus is staring back at me!”
The materially rich also saddened her and warranted her love. She was aware that those who have material possessions are often emotionally poor. She claimed that there are none so poor as those who are denied affection from others. Visiting an old folks home in New York City, she looked around and exclaimed, “I have never seen poorer people anywhere in the world.”
Taking care of poor, impoverished India was easy, as far as she was concerned. It only took a piece of bread and some water. But in the United States she saw people whose physical needs were cared for, but who were left emotionally neglected and lonely. These, she believed, were the poorest people on earth.
Mother Teresa was well aware that people who want to give and serve have to do so for the right reasons. Paying a visit to Haiti in the mid-1970s, she met a man who wanted to give money to the Sisters of Charity. When she was handed a huge check by the man she proceeded to tear it up and say, “Instead of giving money to the poor, why don’t you go home and love your wife?” She would not allow giving to the poor to be a means of escaping the guilt that should be felt by those who fail to love those whom God has given them to love.
I know of a woman who went through a divorce and felt very much alone in the world. She wrote to Mother Teresa and asked if it was possible for her to join the Sisters of Charity and minister among the needy. Months went by without an answer. Eventually a hand-addressed envelope came to the home of the woman. Inside the envelope was a simple letter that read, “Find you own Calcutta!” Mother Teresa was all too aware that we have a tendency to look for exotic places to do service for the kingdom of God when, in reality, there are needs all around us that are waiting to be met with Christ’s love. She made us aware that until we are faithful in loving those around us, we ought not to think we will be able to love those who live in some far-off place.
Some have been critical of Mother Teresa. They argue that she never addressed the root causes of poverty, which lay in political and economic structures. But the root cause of poverty is greed. Oppressive social structures are only instruments for expressing that greed. While not dealing with social structures, she certainly called us away from the greediness that gives birth to injustice and the poverty that injustice causes.
Others criticize Mother Teresa because in their eyes, she wasn’t sufficiently evangelistic. Such critics do not understand that she took seriously the admonition of St. Francis of Assisi who said, “We should always preach the gospel, and sometimes we should use words.”
She often quoted Gandhi; “If Christians lived out the message of Jesus, there would be no Hindus left in India!”
Most of all Mother Teresa loved Jesus and trusted in him. When a reporter from the New York Times asked her what would happen to the Sisters of Charity when she was no longer around to raise money and to lend support to the mission, she simply answered, “It’s none of my business!” The work that she did belonged to the Lord, and the Lord will continue to carry out that ministry through the many who have been inspired by her example.